“Neither tarnished, nor afraid” by Charles L. P. Silet
In his famous essay, “The Simple Art of Murder,” Raymond Chandler defended the detective story against Dorothy Sayers’ charge that it could never “attain the loftiest level of literary achievement,” by defining, in effect, the characteristics of the hard-boiled detective novel in his most often quoted piece of prose: “But down these mean streets a man must go who himself is not mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid…”
However, this quote appears in a paragraph that begins: “In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption.” It is the quality of redemption which more accurately is the determining characteristic of Chandler’s prose than is the “mean streets” definition. The redemptive qualities of his narratives, particularly the Philip Marlowe novels, also remind us of their emphasis on ordinary lives (a democratic ideal that is echoed in the prose and poetry of our finest writers: Thoreau, Emerson, Whitman, Du Bois, Faulkner, Twain).
Like many other modern American writers Chandler spent much of his life abroad. He was born in Chicago in 1888, but his Irish mother took him to live in England in 1895 once they had been abandoned by her alcoholic husband. There Chandler studied the classics, mathematics, and even divinity, in school, and in 1905 he spent a year on the continent learning French and German. After becoming a naturalized British citizen, Chandler worked briefly for the Admiralty and then as a journalist for the Daily Express and the Westminster Gazette before returning to the United States where he settled in Los Angeles in 1912. For the next twenty years Chandler worked at and was fired from a number of jobs. He served briefly in World War I with a Canadian Infantry Brigade and saw action on the Western front. In 1919 he began an affair with Cissy Pascal, a married woman, and after her divorce and his mother’s death, they were married in 1924.
In 1933 Chandler first published a detective story in Black Mask, and over the next five years he wrote short fiction for the pulps, before beginning his first novel, The Big Sleep, which was published by Knopf in 1939. For the next few years Chandler wrote novels, many of which he sold to the movies, and in 1943 he was hired by Paramount to work with Billy Wilder on a screen adaptation of James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity. During the 1940s Chandler increasingly turned out screenplays such as The Blue Dahlia, The Lady in the Lake, The Big Sleep, and Strangers on a Train which were turned into successful films. In the 1950s Chandler resumed his heavy drinking and he completed only one more novel during his lifetime, The Long Goodbye (1954), the same year that Cissy died after a long series of illnesses. Although he had a number of affairs during the later half of the decade none filled the void left by her death. Raymond Chandler died of pneumonia in La Jolla, California on March 26th 1959.
Since his death Raymond Chandler has come to be recognized as a major American prose writer, and, along with Dashiell Hammett, one of the primary founders of the hard-boiled school of detective fiction. The publication by The Library of America, in two uniform volumes, of seven of his novels, thirteen of his short stories, a screenplay, and selected essays and letters marks a sort of official acceptance of crime fiction in the canon of American literature, and it indicates Chandler’s permanent position as a fiction writer of importance in modern American letters. All of the selections in the two volumes have been published elsewhere, but the collection makes them more readily accessible. Frank MacShane, Chandler’s biographer, made the selections and supplied the textual notes as well as a comprehensive chronology of the writer’s life. As usual in The Library of America series, the editorial material has been kept to a minimum, but MacShane’s notes do provide a context for reading Chandler’s work more fruitfully.
So far the critics have complained about the inclusion of some of the lesser novels, the Double Indemnity screenplay, and the sparseness of the letters; some reviewers have even suggested the titles could have been pared down to one volume. But this is minor carping. What MacShane and the editors at The Library of America have achieved is a comprehensive edition of Chandler’s work which will stand for some time as the standard one. By including enough material for two volumes, the editors have assured that the first crime writer to be honored by them is not being slighted, and they have made the claim, if it still needs to be made, that the canon of American literature must be expanded to include all good writing in America no matter what its subject matter or previous literary standing. As the first crime writer to be honored by the series, Raymond Chandler was an excellent choice.
An Annotated Raymond Chandler Reading List
Stories and Early Novels:
Pulp Stories/the Big Sleep/Farewell, My Lovely/the High Window (Library of America, 80)
Later Novels and Other Writings:
The Lady in the Lake/the Little Sister/the Long Goodbye/Playback/Double Indemnity/Selected Essays and Letters
Buy Raymond Chandler Mystery Books at MysteryBookstore.com
Charles L.P. Silet teaches courses in film and contemporary literature at Iowa State University and writes extensively on the mystery field. He is currently working on a collection of his interviews with major contemporary writers.